I visited Pickering Castle in Yorkshire in August. Its a Norman Motte and Bailey structure constructed as a result of the Anglo Saxon uprisings in the North and the Midlands against the rule of William the Conqueror. First to revolt were the Mercians who joined forces with the Welsh under Eadric the Wild and went on the rampage along the Welsh border. William came north and defeated this Saxon/ Welsh alliance near Stafford. In retaliation Staffordshire and Cheshire were put to the sword. Discontent continue to simmer especially in the North which exploded in 1069 when Norman officials were murdered. William ensured that the Danes were bought off who had sided with the rebels in Yorkshire and then began the systematic strategy which became known as the “Harrying of the North”. The Normans slaughtered ,destroyed crops and livestock and burned down towns and villages. The ground was salted to ensure nothing would grow and the survivors left to starve.
A chronicler wrote “ there was such hunger that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses, cats and dogs. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives. It was horrible to look into the ruined farmyards and houses and see the human corpses dissolved into corruption, for there were none to bury them for all were gone either in flight, or cut down by the sword or famine. None dwelt there and travellers passed in great fear of beasts and savage robbers”.
I was chatting with an archaeologist in York who told me that it has been calculated that over 100,000 people died as a consequence of William's actions. Interestingly from the size of skeletons discovered in the Anglo Saxon period and for hundred years after William's the average height of the peasantry fell by 3 inches. He felt that it was the consequence of the Feudal System.
As far as the Staffordshire Moorlands the immediate impact of the “Harrying” were catastrophic. Many communities were abandoned The Doomsday Book established by William to survey the wealth of the country 20 years after Hastings demonstrates this poverty. Several villages are registered as having no population such as Endon, Sheen, Rudyard and Grindon. Leek had 28 households and Cheadle 11. The Norman invasion saw also a radical transformation of land ownership in Caverswall, for instance, prior to 1066 the land was possessed by Wulgeat of Madeley, in 1086 the owner was Arnulf of Hesdin originally from Picardy and a friend of King William. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellions only 4% of land was in the hands of old Saxon aristocracy and I am guessing that the population of the upland areas was lower than before the Roman occupation of Britain. It took many years to recover.